Systems modelling for synergistic ecological-climate dynamics

For those interested in my current science research directions, I’ve just been funded for another 4 years by the Australian Research Council as a Professorial “Future Fellow“, to continue my work on stochastic systems modelling and scenario optimisation. Here are some details on the project:

Title: Systems modelling for synergistic ecological-climate dynamics

Summary of Proposal: The project aims to improve forecasts of the response of biodiversity to future climate change, and develop better on-ground conservation management. A systems modelling framework will be developed and tested against real-world data, to integrate a wide variety of biological and geophysical inputs and so produce more realistic predictions.

Many computer-based tools have been developed to simulate single-species demography and population dynamics and the effect of habitat loss, disease spread, response to harvest, and shifts in geographical ranges due to climate change. These applications can be individually sophisticated, yet they perform necessarily limited roles in isolation. I will implement a set of ‘meta-modelling’ applications to inter-link separate ecological simulators, by allowing sharing of data structures, parameters and outputs. Using a dynamical systems approach, I will develop and test a framework for multidisciplinary forecasting and sensitivity analysis, providing improved predictions of biodiversity response to the many and complex stressors of global change.

Here is the University of Adelaide media release and below are some further details on the aims and methods:

My strategic aims are to:

(a) determine the extent to which climate change might amplify or mitigate existing major anthropogenic threats to biodiversity (e.g. habitat degradation, overexploitation, and invasive species) and

(b) link this real-world data to novel statistical and computational systems models for predictive purposes.

The goal is to use available long-term data to model and forecast population responses (distributional range, fragmentation, viability, community interactions) to multiple stressors, in particular climate change.

The objectives of the proposed research are three-fold:

1. Develop regional ecological response models for threatened (and other important) species, using long-term data to evaluate the synergistic impact of multiple threats on population responses. These models will integrate existing ecosystem attributes and data related to demography, distribution, and autecology.

2. Partition population responses between anthropogenic, environmental and climatic stressors, identify historical population trends relative to contemporary climate change, and analyse emergent results from complex simulators.

3. Use integrated ecological response models to forecast population responses to future climatic conditions based on ecosystem attributes and regional down-scaled Global Climate Model outputs.

Given the scope and rate of climate change and other human impacts, it is now imperative that we find logistically feasible and cost-effective ways to prevent a cascading loss of biodiversity, from the local/regional to national/international scale, and thus maintain relatively healthy ecosystems in perpetuity. The project aims to improve forecasts of the response of biodiversity to future climate change, and so improve on-ground conservation management. A systems modelling framework will be developed, and tested against real-world data, to integrate a wide variety of biological and geophysical inputs and so produce more realistic predictions. Model development will be based on decades of on-ground monitoring and remote sensing data. Linking ecological response models to climate model projections affords an opportunity to project species and ecosystem responses for the next 50+ years, while providing a state-of-the-art forecasting tool for conservation and management agencies.

Meta-modelling is an approach in which computational links are constructed between separately developed discipline-specific models (described in Nyhus et al. 2007). The concept is that individual simulators (existing or new models) can function as arbitrarily powerful stand-alone programs, with a meta-model framework being used to manage the integration of two or more system components, to create a dynamic ‘bottom-up’ simulation. By passing data structures and variables describing the state of the system between programs, this novel approach can be used to develop sophisticated applications without the need to focus on time-consuming (and often specialist) development of all individual processes. It also holds the promise of generating emergent, non-linear behaviour – much like the output produced by Earth Systems models, which include atmosphere, cryosphere and layered ocean models, dynamic vegetation simulators, etc. (IPCC 2007).

——————–

I also hope to build in energy systems case studies into this work, as it’s now obviously a serious research interest of mine. There’s lots more in the formal proposal of course, but I’d be happy to answer any questions here on BNC on the details of the approach.

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24 Comments

  1. It would be a tour de force if the model could predict the no-intervention demise of a specific species. I fear that a lot of effort will go into tweaking macro models to accommodate micro data that don’t apply elsewhere. I live 20 minutes drive from where the last well-documented thylacine was caught in 1933. I say well documented because of the famous YouTube clip here. For that species some pundits suggest not merely habitat fragmentation and hunting but lack of genetic fitness ie it was doomed regardless. Now for similar reasons related species Tasmanian Devils and perhaps spotted quolls may only be saved by human intervention.

    Rather than predicting a binary event such as extinction or non-extinction I wonder if an easier task would be predicting aggregate flows. For example I think damp sub-alpine forest will give way to woodland with less understorey carbon capture and more frequent wildfires. Not as emotive as a species extinction but more economically relevant.

  2. Wow. What a huge (and ambitious) project. Congrats on the grant.

    I’m going to have to read the Nyhus paper to get my head around some of it. As someone who is interested in getting into on-ground conservation management, I’ll be very interested to follow this as it develops.

    How big will the team working on this be?

  3. Tom K, the team is big and diverse, since the project is inherently very multidisciplinary. Here is an excerpt from the proposal:

    The meta-modelling and climate downscaling work will involve extensive collaborations with Dr. Tom Wigley at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, Professor H. Reşit Akçakaya of Stony Brook University (USA), Drs Robert Lacy and Phil Miller of the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Zoological Society (USA), Dr Miguel Araújo of Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (Spain) and Professor Navjot Sodhi of the National University of Singapore (Singapore). National collaborative partners include Dr David Keith (NSW Dept. Climate Change), Drs Brendan Wintle and Jane Elith (University of Melbourne), Prof Steve Williams (James Cook University), Dr Colin Yates (WA Conservation and Land Management Department).

    The key UoA people, apart from me, are Corey Bradshaw and Phill Cassey + our postdocs/PhD students: http://www.ees.adelaide.edu.au/research/eeb/ecology_gp/

  4. All very valuable work and congratualtions on the funding,Barry.

    It is pity there is not some work done on the population response of Homo Saps. Then again,maybe Malthus will have the last word there – nothing new under the sun and all that.

  5. Congratulations Barry.
    There seems to be a lot of horespower here and I hope it doesn’t get too much wheelspin.
    Please remember there are many more serious anthropogenic threats to our native wildlife than AGW and you don’t need to waste time with models to see the obvious problems.
    South Australia has such a big daily temperature range that it is hard to imagine a single species that is likely to be affected by the almost undetectable AGW increase to date however at least don’t let SA do stupid things like Qld when they resumed [for a national park] an already biodiverse and potentially magnificent wildlife habitat that was Fraser Island and turned it into a feral dog nursery which is now devoid [and getting devoider] of much of its recent native wildlife.
    BTW they are about to do a similar thing with North Stradbroke Island which has the potential to become a great site for a nuclear power and desal plant for SEQ.

  6. Drongo,I agree with your comment on Fraser Island being a feral dog nursery however I can’t let the rest go past.

    Dingoes were introduced to Australia by humans probably no earlier than 9000 years ago.That makes them feral in my view but I don’t get much agreement with that view when I express it to otherwise environmentally aware people.There is a lot of human emotion invested in dogs.Just another of the irrationalities of Homo Saps.

    The dingoes on Fraser have been there for thousands of years,probably, and I think there have been major effects on animal populations.Because the Fraser dingoes have been isolated from the mainland feral dog population they are probably about the only “pure” bred dingoes left.This gives them value in the eyes of a lot of people,tourist industry operatives included.

    However ,the dingoes interact with people,sometimes with disastrous consequences,both for the people and the dingoes concerned.My solution to this conflict of interests would be to remove the dingoes from the island and use them as breeding stock for a registered breed.BTW,my personal preference would be to shoot the bloody dingoes,end of story.

    Re Fraser Island as a national park – Fraser has been used and abused since the mid 19th century by logging and sand mining.The park declaration stopped all that after a hell of a battle by people like John Sinclair and FIDO.Now the island is being abused by rampant tourism and mismanagement by the Qld government.

    Fraser Island is still one of the most beautiful and interesting places in Australia.It is not pristine wilderness but large areas are essentially untouched.It badly needs much better management which will entail backing off vested interests among other sometimes unpopular measures.

    Re North Stradbroke Island – there has been large scale sand mining on North Stradbroke for many years.The government,to their credit,has decided to phase this out.Sand mining is not compatible with any barrier sand island,especially not islands like Stradbroke,Moreton and Fraser with their magnificently diverse flora and fauna.

    As for putting a power plant,nuclear or otherwise,and a desal plant on Stradbroke – that is just crazy stuff and not worthy of a site like BNC.

  7. Congratulations … yes, very ambitious. Having been involved in “shared” data
    structures in the transport industry for … way too long … beware of complex
    data structures. The world of instant transit advice applications really took off
    when google started promoting its datastructures for timetabling data sharing.

    http://code.google.com/transit/spec/transit_feed_specification.html

    In contrast to decades worth of overly complex rubbish from “standards” groups, google went for simple and well thought out. It was easy for transport organisations to export to this model … but some of the others (I won’t name
    and shame) are so complex that exporting data to them is very expensive
    in programming time.

    N.B. “simple and well thought out” is really tough to do!

    Having just read the Liz Fulton co-authored paper on MTL in fisheries,
    I’d be guessing you might like to have her on board, she looks like a hell of a modeller.

  8. Podargus,

    30 to 40 years ago when Fraser Is was similar to North Stradbroke today [extensive sand mining, various industries, sustainable population etc] native wildlife was very diverse and you could see it in the roo and wallaby populations. [when these are plainly obvious it is a good indication of the health of other ground dwellers].
    These no longer exist like they do in huge numbers on NSI. Also some of the most vulnerable native wildlife survive there [NSI] mainly due to the great work on specific revegation done by the sandminers. South Stradbroke Is also sand mined and has a higher population than the other two yet has great biodiversity.
    What is wrong with putting a NPP in a wilderness area such as NSI where water and energy services can be delivered efficiently to large populations? Do you think it endangers the wildlife?

  9. spangled drongo,

    “Please remember there are many more serious anthropogenic threats to our native wildlife than AGW and you don’t need to waste time with models to see the obvious problems.”

    I think the idea of this research is to model the “obvious” problems and then multiply them by other obvious and non-obvious problems, resulting in a synergistic model of responses and impacts.

    “South Australia has such a big daily temperature range that it is hard to imagine a single species that is likely to be affected by the almost undetectable AGW increase to date”

    You seem to be lacking a basic understanding of population dynamics. The daily weather extremes give little insight, for example, into how species distribution might be affected by even minor shifts in climate.

  10. Tom
    “You seem to be lacking a basic understanding of population dynamics. The daily weather extremes give little insight, for example, into how species distribution might be affected by even minor shifts in climate.”

    Maybe I should have used annual extremes as a better example.
    For instance, do you think that with, say, a koala that already experiences [and copes well with] annual temp ranges from 0 to 45c, you would be able to model its future ability to cope with the odd 46c hour? and that the time, money and effort spent in trying to do this might not be better spent elsewhere?

  11. Again spangled drongo, intra-annual weather extremes are not a good indicator of how shifts in climate might affect species distribution. For example, variations in climate can have significant effects, both temporally and spatially, on things like seed dispersal and pollination. This can lead to changes in both distribution and abundance of different plant species, which in turn can effect other organisms which rely on (often specific) primary producers to survive.

    That said, isolated extreme hot weather events can have detrimental effects on already stressed populations (from habitat fragmentation, invasive species etc.). Which brings us back to the importance of synergistic studies.

  12. Great news! Even though you remain on the wrong side of the CAGW issue, I have faith in your intellectual honesty.

    As John Keats would have it:
    ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

  13. G C,

    You got it!

    At our place right now it’s:

    Kingfishers pound the termite mound
    To build themselves a nest.
    Synergy? Well, erotic hell.
    The ants: “Give it a rest!”

    Does our level of scientific understanding of biological synergy exceed that of climate synergy?

    WRT models, does a similar degree of assumption apply?

  14. Congratulations on the Future Fellowship Barry. If these things had been around when I was looking to return to oz I might still be an academic.

    It looks like really interesting work. Can you give an example of how it might find application in on the ground conservation management? And is there some mechanism to translate the research findings to policy, perhaps to be implemented by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, or other body with appropriate jurisdiction?

  15. Hi Professor,

    First off, awesome site.

    I’m just following up from my recent comment about your RSS feed being published to Before It’s News.

    I’m the Environment editor at Before It’s News. Our site is a People Powered news platform with over 1,000,000 visits a month and growing fast.

    We would be honored if we could republish your blog RSS feed in our Environment category. Our readers need to read what your blog has to say.

    Syndicating to Before It’s News is a terrific way spread the word and grow your audience. Many other organizations are using Before It’s News to do just that. We can have your feed up and running in 24 hours. I just need you to reply with your permission to do so. Please include the full name and email of the person who will be attached to the account, and let me know the name you want on the account (most people have their name or their blog name).

    You can also have any text and/or links you wish appended to the end or prepended to the beginning of each of your posts on Before It’s News. Just email me the text and links that you want at the beginning and/or ending of each post. If you know html you can send me that. If not, just send me the text and a link to your site. It should be around 200 characters or less (not including links).

    You can, if you like, create a custom feed for Before It’s News that includes multiple links back to your blog or web site. We only require that RSS feeds include full stories, not partial stories. We don’t censor or edit your work.

    All the best,

    Chris Holehouse
    Editor, Before It’s News
    http://www.beforeitsnews.com
    chris.h@beforeitsnews.com

  16. Podargus

    “As for putting a power plant,nuclear or otherwise,and a desal plant on Stradbroke – that is just crazy stuff and not worthy of a site like BNC.”

    I find this a fascinating statement and one that is fundamental to this site. Here is a large wilderness area that is currently being mined, surrounded by ocean, bay and forest, close to big populations yet probably as remote as it is possible to get [and still be within coo-ee of consumers] with today’s level of development on Qld’s coastline.

    Where else would you suggest?

  17. Can you give an example of how it might find application in on the ground conservation management? And is there some mechanism to translate the research findings to policy, perhaps to be implemented by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, or other body with appropriate jurisdiction?

    I guess that’s really a question that’s a focus of http://conservationbytes.com blog! Many of the case studies I and my team are working on have real-world conservation issues to sort out. For instance, we are looking at the long-term viability of the glossy-back cockatoo on Kangaroo Island and the potential for reintroduction to the mainland. We are also now modelling the impact of feral pigs on the metapopulation of snake-necked turtles in Arnhem Land, in particular the impact of changes in the wet-dry cycle and the frequency with which billabong dry (and therefore expose the turtles to pig predation). This seems likely to change with climate shifts.

    Translating to policy that can be implemented by wildlife conservation and management agencies is always a long road, but a key step is to deliver: (a) simple rules of thumb (based on generalisations of detailed modelling or empirical work), and (b) forecasting and sensitivity analysis tools that we can put in the hands of the manager to allow them to generate their own scenarios.

    A good example of (a) is Traill, Bradshaw & Brook 2007 (I just got a highly cited paper award for this), and for (b) McMahon, Brook, Collier & Bradshaw 2010.

    The new work will build on these types of case studies, and plenty of new ones, including examples of Pleistocene human-climate interactions.

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